March 2, 2004
NRC Should Revoke FirstEnergy’s License for Davis-Besse Reactor
NRC to Rule Soon on Operating Status for Problem-Plagued Nuclear Plant
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen has called on the federal government to disallow a restart of, and revoke the operating license for, the problem-plagued Davis-Besse nuclear reactor near Toledo, Ohio, which has been shut down since February 2002. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is expected to decide the idled plant’s operational status soon.
“The Davis-Besse nuclear reactor is a reminder of the inherent problems and extreme risks of nuclear power,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “It is time for the NRC to do its job and impose the harshest penalty possible: withdrawal of the plant’s operating license.”
From the time the NRC agreed to postpone a critical inspection of the Davis-Besse reactor until the discovery of the football-sized hole in the vital vessel head component three months later, Davis-Besse has provided a striking example of how not to run a nuclear reactor. It also highlights the problems that occur when regulators act as promoters of the industry they are supposed to oversee, Hauter said.
“Ohio residents have lost confidence in the ability of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company to run the plant safely and effectively,” Hauter said.
- The cracks, acid leaks and decay that took the Davis-Besse reactor to the brink of disaster in 2001 were not the first problems at the relatively young reactor. Davis-Besse was shut down in 1985 due to a seriously compromised reactor cooling system. At the time, that incident was widely regarded as the worst nuclear incident since the meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania. Since then, the reactor has experienced a plethora of operational problems ranging from faulty fire protection systems to weaknesses in crucial reactor coolant pumps.
- FirstEnergy and NRC have both demonstrated that they have little or no safety culture. In a report to the NRC, FirstEnergy emphasized production over safety. It is clear that financial considerations were behind the company’s resistance to shutting down the reactor for safety inspections by a deadline originally put forth by the NRC. Further, an independent survey in 2002 showed that many NRC employees perceive a nationwide “compromise of the safety culture” and that “safety training is considered to be based on outdated scenarios that leave the security of the nuclear sites within the United States vulnerable to sabotage.” Only 53 percent of NRC employees think that it is “safe to speak up in the NRC,” according to the survey.
- The NRC struck a deal with FirstEnergy to delay the shutdown of Davis-Besse, thereby risking public health and safety. The NRC knew that Davis-Besse was highly susceptible to cracks and leaks, especially since the same type of problems had occurred at similar reactors. The NRC established a Dec. 31, 2001, deadline for full shutdown of the plants that it believed were of highest risk, of which Davis-Besse was one. FirstEnergy protested that deadline and requested March 30, 2002, when the reactor was already scheduled to shut down for a routine refueling. In the end, the NRC did not issue a shutdown order for Davis-Besse and instead agreed with FirstEnergy to a Feb. 16, 2002, shutdown date.
The NRC’s own Office of the Inspector General – its internal investigative agency – judged the agency’s actions as improper. The inspector general found that the NRC knowingly permitted Davis-Besse to operate with reduced safety margins for the industry’s “practical” convenience, and the agency could not assure protection of the public’s health and safety due to these decisions.
- The emergency evacuation plan for the area surrounding Davis-Besse is inadequate. From maintaining emergency sirens to notifying the community of evacuation routes, emergency plans are riddled with holes and are largely untested. Residents of the Marblehead area, a popular summer tourist destination, would have to drive toward the reactor for several miles to evacuate the area quickly by car.
- FirstEnergy’s managers face indictments over decisions that allowed the acid-burned hole to form in the vessel head of the Davis-Besse reactor. A disclosure form filed Nov. 21, 2003, with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission showed that a federal grand jury had been meeting in Cleveland to consider indictments. Logic would dictate that FirstEnergy, which owns and operates two reactors in Ohio and two reactors in Pennsylvania, should not be permitted to run any nuclear plant until the Ohio grand jury has ruled. The inquiry also raises questions as to whether FirstEnergy can be trusted with nuclear technology.
“FirstEnergy’s violations in the operation of the Davis-Besse reactor have been egregious, and the NRC has failed to act as the strict regulator that the public expects it to be,” Hauter said. “The NRC can prove it is a serious regulator of the nuclear power industry and work to safeguard public health and safety by revoking FirstEnergy’s operating license.”